Rethinking Healthcare

Can genetically modified corn save the midwest from drought?

Can genetically modified corn save the midwest from drought?

Posting in Environment

As drought ravages much of U.S. farmland, Monsanto sees a 24% rise in stock shares with its drought-tolerant GM corn.

As a record-breaking drought ravages much of the U.S. farmland, Co.Exist reports this week on the resurgence in popularity of dry farming. Michael J. Coren writes:

During the rainy season, farmers break up soil then saturated with water. Using a roller, the first few inches of the soil are compacted and later form a dry crust, or dust mulch, that seals in the moisture against evaporation.

Crops planted in the water-saving soil live off this reserved moisture instead of irrigation. Water stress concentrates sugar and nutrients in the crops making them extra flavorful. But, dry farming yields are often one-third the size of those from more industrial farms, Coren reports.

Monsanto has another idea for facing the water shortage. The agriculture biotechnology company has been testing out drought-resistant corn seeds. The genetically modified corn takes up water more gradually from the soil, so it needs less of the wet stuff overall. Select farmers have tested the experimental strain this year, and it's slated for wider release in 2013, the Washington Post reports. DuPont and Syngenta also have new drought-resistant strains, though they claim their seeds are hybrids that take advantage of natural corn traits rather than genetic engineering.

Monsanto shares rose 24% this year, thanks in part to excitement over the new drought-resistant strain, SmartMoney reports. But not everyone's excited about the company's approach. Wired's Brandon Keim reports on the new drought-resistant seeds:

None have been tested in large-scale, real-world conditions, and the claims made for them are cautious: They won’t flourish during droughts, but might do a bit better than existing plants, hopefully surviving for one more rainfall.

If they work as advertised, the varieties could be quite useful in droughts of low to moderate intensity. Their utility in the crucible that much of the central and western United States is expected to become, however, will likely be limited.

I'm reminded of college ecology lectures on how we can't innovate our way out of climate change. I agree with that message -- pro-active measures to fight climate change should be prioritized -- but that doesn't remove the fact that these droughts are happening and farmers still need to put food on our tables (and money in their pockets). Most likely a combination of new seed technologies and old agriculture methods like dry farming will provide our best defense against the inevitable loss of precipitation over our farmland.

[Co.Exist, Washington Post, SmartMoney, and Wired]

Photo: CraneStation/Flickr

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure